The Social Network

Online health programs benefit from social networking features

(RxWiki News) Now that the medical profession has linked to social media, a new study indicates adding so-called community features to online health programs can be helpful in reducing attrition in group exercise regimens.

Caroline Richardson, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, and colleagues found in a recent study that adding an interactive online community to a walking regimen significantly decreased the number of participants who dropped out. About 79 percent of participants who used the Web-based forums stuck with the program compared to 66 percent of participants who used a version of the site that didn't include the social/community features.

Participants from both groups tracked the same amount of progress -- about a mile a day on average -- using the site's interface to keep tally.

About three out of four online users visit social networking Web sites such as Facebook and Twitter and read blogs. The medical community has taken notice and adapted accordingly, possibly saving lives -- and dollars -- in the process. One-on-one coaching can be expensive and painstaking compared to the relative ease of navigating a Web site at home.

“Brick by brick we have been building a model of how to change health behaviors using online tools,” Richardson said. “We can see that social components can help to mitigate the big downside that Internet-mediated programs have had in the past, namely attrition.”

Costs of adding community features to a Web-based program proved minimal compared to physical meetings. The pedometers used in Richardson’s program cost $34 each and much of the expense associated with setting up and maintaining the Web site became cheaper as the program expanded.

“We know from this study that online communities can help to keep people engaged,” said Paul Resnick, Ph.D., a professor at the U-M School of Information, and lead author of a complementary study. “But it can be hard to build a critical mass of participation. We found that with the right kinds of staff participation, it’s possible even within a small population to get the conversations going.”

Resnick's study looked at which strategies are most successful at attracting and maintaining social interaction and found that conducting contests with small prizes, having staff respond to posts when there's a lull and using a small number of conversation spaces as opposed to many specialized ones were most effective.

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Review Date: 
December 8, 2010